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Beating Bulls & Hawks, Wolves Reshape Hopes…Expectations?

On Saturday the Timberwolves won in overtime at Chicago. They beat a Bulls team that won 50 games last season, and had just beaten the Oklahoma City Thunder the night before, in the primetime TNT game. Andrew Wiggins had 31 points. Rookie Karl-Anthony Towns had 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 blocks. This came as a surprise, as the Wolves had just lost a one-sided affair on their home court to the Miami Heat and did not show signs of being able to compete with the likes of the Bulls, especially on the road.

Tonight, the Timberwolves won at Atlanta. The Hawks won SIXTY games last season, and came into tonight’s contest with a 7-1 record; the best in the East. This morning in his weekly power rankings, Marc Stein of ESPN listed them third in the NBA. This time Wiggins had 33 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. He dominated crunchtime on offense. Karl-Anthony Towns again had 17 points, this time with 12 rebounds and 3 blocks. He dominated crunchtime on defense.

Just four nights after that expectations-lowering egg they laid on Target Center floor against the Heat, the Timberwolves have fans excited again.

Not about the future, we’re pumped about the future no matter what. Eventually, a team with this much talent will be good. But fans are going to be excited about the present – the basketball being played right now – if this Wolves team can go on the road and win at Chicago and Atlanta in back-to-back games. They’ll be doubly excited if these wins are coming on the backs of Wiggins and Towns (and Rubio, whose overall play continues to lead the team) instead of the older vets like Prince, Martin and Garnett. The vets are helping, don’t get me wrong, but the heavy lifting is being done by the Timberwolves that figure to be here for many more years.

This game tonight in Atlanta was a crazy one, as everybody who watched it knows. The Wolves played FLAWLESS basketball in the first half and led by a whopping 30 points at the break. Seriously, it’s hard to emphasize enough how perfectly the Wolves were playing on both ends of the floor. Along with the usual defense and passing from Rubio, scoring from Wiggins, and the interior presence of Towns, the Wolves were getting unexpected contributions all over the place; nowhere more significant or unexpected than Zach LaVine who might’ve played better than any of his teammates through halftime.

While some type of Hawks comeback was plenty foreseeable, I think most would’ve expected Atlanta to show some veteran pride, cut the Wolves lead down to 15 or even 10, before running out of gas before the game got too close.

Not how it went.

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Ep. 12: A New Day

In which we discuss Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio, and early impressions on the 2015-16 Wolves season.

(Eds. Note: We taped this yesterday. As usual, we had some technical difficulties during this one. ymmv.)

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Talking Towns, Rubio, Wiggins

“I’ve had thirty years of NBA experience. I’ve seen guys come and go. This guy, to me, looks like he’s special. He’s the real deal.”

–Jim Petersen, on Karl-Anthony Towns, during the 3rd Quarter of last night’s telecast.

In previewing this Wolves season, I posed questions about each player, and finished with perhaps the most important franchise question about the most important player on the team:

Is Karl-Anthony Towns the real deal?

He was the player they selected with the first overall draft pick, for the first time ever. With a semblance of a young Timberwolves nucleus forming, Towns figures to be in the middle of it, next to Andrew Wiggins. If the Wolves are going to succeed in their Thunder Model rebuild, Towns needs to be an all-around force; the kind of player that can put a team on his back and carry them to some wins.

For the first time in his two-games-long career, we saw evidence of this last night in Denver. The stats tell most of the story: KAT had 28 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, and 4 blocks in 33 minutes of +15 basketball. His team won easily (in a game that Vegas pegged them as underdogs) and he was by far the biggest reason why. Towns looked comfortable shooting or driving, as the situation required. When an interior defender was out of position, Towns initiated the precise amount of contact to both draw the foul and maintain balance to finish the play and make the shot. His awareness might have been highlighted best by a play that didn’t register a stat: in the post, he head-faked, drew extra defenders, pivoted out of the defense and kicked out a perfect pass to Ricky Rubio at the top of the key. Ricky’s shot rimmed out — so no assist for Towns — but it was a helluva play; one that demonstrated poise and awareness befitting a player way older than 19.

On defense, Towns was very good. He had those 4 blocks and 14 rebounds (11 of them defensive) and goes after defensive boards with the same type of urgency that Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love do. When Towns senses an opponent’s hand creeping in to poke the rebounded ball away, he promptly flares out his elbows and looks for Ricky Rubio to push the ball.

This was just one game, but it seemed almost unbelievable that a 19-year old rookie could look so good in his second professional game. Fans should be excited about this player.

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Shifting Expectations, Wolves Lose Big to Thunder

tyus

Tyus Jones, barely removed from Apple Valley High, started at point guard tonight versus Russ Westbrook.

How a person feels about tonight’s preseason game against the Oklahoma City Thunder depends largely on what that person expected, going into the game, and why they held those expectations. Ricky Rubio has been held out of action for the past few days and we knew that he would not play tonight. (His ailments are not expected to be serious or threaten his regular-season availability.) Add to that the announcement that 19-year old, was-attending-Apple Valley-High-School-17-months-ago Tyus Jones would replace Rubio in the starting lineup against Russell Westbrook, and nobody could reasonably expect a successful outcome. Along with the Jones/Rubio lineup swap, Sam Mitchell made a surprising proclamation yesterday: Zach LaVine will be this team’s starting shooting guard; not Kevin Martin, who was named the starter by… well, himself, at Media Day. This announcement was Mitchell putting bold, italized, capitalized type on that DEVELOPMENT word that he has been throwing around ever since taking over coaching duties. LaVine as a Day 1 starter sends a clear message that potential, and future take priority over actualized ability and the present.

So with all of that built into people’s respective Game Previews, a 23-point loss to the full-strength (well, aside from Steven Adams) Thunder was not surprising. The Wolves starting lineup featured two one-and-done rookies, and two one-and-done sophomores. None of these four are old enough to legally enter a bar in Downtown Minneapolis and yet there they were, all four of em trying to guard Westbrook, Durant, and Ibaka.

Defense was the big, obvious problem tonight. Aside from when Kevin Garnett was on the floor (all of 7 minutes 52 seconds) and when Westbrook and Durant were on the bench (they were both game-high +22’s) the Wolves simply could not get stops. Westbrook was coming off of high ball screens and flooring the accelerator straight down the middle of the lane. Help usually came, but the defense was so out of sorts that Russ was able to do something good with the ball almost every time. He had 14 points and 13 assists on the night, and was every bit as insane out there as he would be in a Finals game.

When the Thunder were not rolling behind Westbrook penetration (or transition sequences) they were running Durant off of Enes Kanter down screens, setting up equally unstoppable action on the wing. Durant, against this defense anyway, makes this a pick-your-poison proposition if there ever was one. Too much help led to nifty passes slipped to Kanter for an easy two points. Not enough help meant, well, Durant would score it himself.

In my opinion, the Westbrook stuff was more preventable (by a hypothetical, good defensive team) than what Durant was doing on the wing. I think Ricky Rubio would do a much better job than Jones and Lorenzo Brown did of jumping out, forcing Russ different directions from where he wanted to go, and at least making him do something besides those halfback dives to the rim.

In any case, the defense struggled. They gave up 122 points on 56 percent field goal shooting. It’s hard to say anything but bad stuff about that. It looked like last year, with the caveat that they (for 22 of the 48 minutes, when Russ & KD played) were facing elite competition.

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Summertime Wolves Talk: Causes for Hope and for Concern

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The Timberwolves played their last summer league game on July 17, over two weeks ago. They drafted Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyus Jones on June 25, almost six weeks ago. They played their last real, regular season game on April 15, about three and a half months ago. They won’t open training camp for almost two months, or the regular season for about three.

Not much is happening right now.

But, as anyone familiar with Twitter or message-board blogs knows, that lack of substance does very little to slow the chatter of year-round, need-my-Timberwolves-fix fans.

Over the past week, Timberwolves coach(/owner/president of basketball) Flip Saunders has gone out of his way to incite discussion about his team. He gave an interview to Zach Lowe of Grantland that covered a wide range of topics that pretty much spanned the spectrum of seriousness: last year’s season and tanking, the Kevin Love-Andrew Wiggins trade, KG, Ricky Rubio, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Bennett and the team’s decision of whether to pick up his next team option, his Mountain Dew habit, drunken trade negotiations back in the 1980s CBA, three-point shooting and spacing, expectations for next season, and Sam Cassell’s injury in the 2004 Playoffs which Flip attributes to a testicles-dance gone bad. (!) The whole interview is absolutely worth reading, in case you missed it. Link here.

Yesterday, Flip offered a bit more to chew on. This time the medium was his very own Twitter account which had been inactive for a long time. Flip hopped on yesterday in the early Sunday evening to “set this straight,” and very briefly explain that he and his staff “love” three-point shots, they have to shoot them, they will shoot them and whoever said otherwise is wrong. There was a vague introductory reference to “blogs” and “experts” as the culprits erroneously suggesting that Flip might not prioritize the three-point shot as highly as his modern coaching peers, or as much as he should.

For Timberwolves fans paying somewhat close attention to the team and to the league, the threes issue is a sensitive one. Threes are an essential tool for building a good offense in the modern NBA. That’s pretty much undisputed at this point. In spite of this, Flip Saunders — no matter what he says on Twitter — does not run offenses that generate very many three-point shots. As Seth Partnow pointed out in his latest piece for the Washington Post, Flip’s teams have shot threes at a lower-than-league-average rate in every season but one, since the league moved the line back to its current distance in 1997. That covers time spent with the Timberwolves, Pistons, Wizards, and Timberwolves again. That covers almost 20 years. For Flip to say that he “loves” three-point shots and call out “blogs” for questioning this is either disingenuous or just redefining what words like “love” even mean.

He clearly does not coach in a way that leads to effective, prolific three-point shooting. And fans, armed with more and better information than ever, know this. So when Flip goes on the Twitter attack, it leads to backlash and argument and discussion and all of a sudden we can’t tell if we’re happy or mad about the Timberwolves.

Which leads me to this early-August post, and the things I feel that Timberwolves fans should be mostly hopeful about, and mostly concerned about. I think there is ample substance on both sides of the ledger, and it’s unreasonable for any fan to feel completely one sided about the State of the Timberwolves.

Here’s my quick list, basically off the top of my head. Since, you know, it’s August:

Cause for Hope #1 – Andrew Wiggins

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Vegas, Baby, Vegas: The 2015 Timberwolves Summer League Edition

Towns and LaVine, postgame antics

Towns and LaVine, postgame antics

The last time we posted, it was June 29, and Andy G mused about the Wolves’ 2015 draft, in which they selected the much-haralded Karl-Anthony Towns #1 overall and pulled off a trade to get back into the first round to draft Apple Valley native and Duke Final Four hero Tyus Jones at number 24.

Much of the reaction to the draft fell into a few different bins. One bin could be called “Yay, we took Karl-Anthony Towns #1!” This encompassed most of Wolves fandom, at least that segment of which is most active on Twitter and websites like Canis Hoopus. Towns was the consensus top player overall and Wolves brass finally made the obvious correct choice: they got the player that analysts and smart fans expect to be the best player from this draft. Towns fills a position of need for the Timberwolves. Nikola Pekovic, the brutish but oft-injured Montenegrin who is under contract with the Wolves through the 2017–18 season, has foot injuries that may end up threatening his career. He can’t be counted on as an integral anchor for the Wolves at center as the rest of the team blossoms under the leadership of rising stars like Andrew Wiggins and Ricky Rubio, not to mention intriguing prospects like Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine. Kevin Garnett is also back in the fold, on a two-year, $16 million deal. But Garnett cannot be fully counted-on either, for he is too old and too often injured. His return appears more as foreshadowing his move into ownership and management with Flip Saunders and Glen Taylor than it does a productive output on the floor this season or next. The bottom-line is, the Wolves had a need at Center. As a marvelously skilled big man, Towns should eliminate that need altogether.

A second bin of Wolves draft-related conversation could be called “We took Tyus Jones! He’s from Minnesota!” I’ll talk a bit about Jones first, and then discuss my reactions to Karl Towns.

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Towns, Tyus, and Building a Nucleus

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As you already know, the draft was last Thursday, and it was a big one for our favorite team. I decided to take it in over at the new Mayo Clinic facilities, and swing through the arena for the announcement of the first pick. What follows is some parts recap of that night, with some thoughts about the Wolves two draft picks and where the team finds itself right now, heading into Summer 2015.

Karl-Anthony Towns

The Wolves first draft selection was equal parts boring and exciting. For at least a few days, the media had been reporting that Flip was going to draft Karl-Anthony Towns from Kentucky. Brian Windhorst went on ESPN — live, from Minneapolis — shortly before the pick was officially announced by Adam Silver, to confirm that this was still the case. So there was not the unpredictability that has come to define Timberwolves drafts of the past decade. As expected, the Wolves chose Towns.

Perhaps that was a good thing this time around, because in taking Towns the Wolves set the Target Center crowd on fire with cheers. Its team had just taken the consensus “best player in the draft,” for the first time in franchise history. In his conference call with Minnesota media on Thursday night, and especially at his introductory press conference the next day in Minneapolis, Towns said all the right things. He compared joining the emerging nucleus of young Timberwolves talent to playing for Kentucky. He looks forward to being mentored by Kevin Garnett, because he wants to learn what it takes to become a champion. He looks forward to taking care of his parents, who sacrificed so much for him to reach this point. He is emphasizing “playoffs” as a goal for this team. Like, right away. Whether unrealistic or not, that’s a refreshing thing to hear said, after a season spent losing on purpose.

The psychoanalysis that we all perform on these 20-year olds is unfair for a number of reasons; perhaps most of all because of the unusual venue in which we observe them. But we do it nonetheless. Andrew Wiggins is a man of few words. He’d rather let his actions on the court speak for themselves. Zach LaVine has a well-intentioned cockiness about him. When most of the new, young Wolves looked nervous on Media Day last year — usually sharing the press conference table with a teammate — the 19-year old, looked-more-like-15-year-old, LaVine sat by himself and began his own presser with a, “Sup wit y’all?” to the media before him.

Towns is thoughtful and gregarious. He enjoys speaking to an audience, but carefully considers a question before answering it. In the past year, he has listed Len Bias as his favorite player, and shouted out Felipe Lopez as a fellow Dominican baller. For a 19-year old, he’s showing off impressive knowledge of basketball esoterica. Whether any of this matters once he steps on the court is a fair question, but for now the personality is all we’ve had a chance to see, and Karl-Anthony Towns “won” his press conference. Assuming he can play like most expect, Towns is going to be a fan favorite.

Tyus Jones

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